Surviving the Actor’s Nightmare

It’s a nightmare theatre actors know all too well. What’s worse is that most, if not all, have experienced it. You know, that moment that someone in your scene (maybe it’s you!) forgets his or her line and there’s an awkward silence. It feels like an eternity. Sweat glistens. Eyes dart around helplessly. Everybody is watching. People start booing and throwing shoes at your face…

Well, hopefully you haven’t experienced that last part. But this scenario is frightening to even consider, let alone actually trudge through. Unfortunately, we will have to trudge through at some point. How can we make this as painless as possible?


  • DON’T craft a “back-up plan.” Some may disagree with me, but I discourage the forming of a back-up plan for two reasons: (1) the time you spend planning a recovery from botched lines can be spent simply rehearsing the correct ones, and (2) if you know you have a back-up plan (read: crutch), your brain will use it instead of staying on track
  • DON’T write line on your hand or on the set, for the exact same two reasons I listed above.
  • DO rehearse often, especially those scenes you know give you trouble. If a dialogue is cyclical (it keeps returning to previous topics, or uses the same phrase multiple times), spend extra time working it.
  • DO memorize thought-to-thought instead of cue-to-cue. Your cue may not come the way you expected it, and that would be a silly reason to not know what to say next.
  • DO spend time studying your scene mates’ lines. You may be able to spur them to their line more quickly and accurately.

In the Moment:

  • forgot-my-lineDON’T drop character.
  • DON’T panic or get flustered. That doesn’t help anybody.
  • DO remember that the audience doesn’t know the script or how it’s supposed to look. They might not even know anything is wrong.
  • DO pick the next closest line you can remember, if the scene is absolutely stuck.
  • DO speak confidently, even if you’re not confident. The audience may consider something’s amiss if the actors are speaking timidly.
  • DO improvise to the best of your ability. If you are truly living in the moment, do or say whatever would be natural at the time.

Once you are back on track:

  • DON’T try to figure out what went wrong. Not even when you are off-stage. It’s done. Move on.
  • DON’T blame anybody. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame another actor. Like I said, it’s done.
  • DO remember that even if it was an obvious train wreck, it did not derail the entire show or the experience for the audience. Even if they felt awkward in the moment, the best service you can give them is a strong finish. The bumps will be genuinely forgotten.
  • DO feel empowered! You just survived the actor’s nightmare! You have joined an elite club of professionals who have been through the worst, and come out the other side. You know the rush of adrenaline, the firing of mental synapses, the thrill of improvisation, and you could do it again if you need to! Chalk up another one, you ol’ pro. You earned it.

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